How journalists can help make our national debate a little kinder

“We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”
I can’t get that phrase out of my head.
Not that I want to.
They are, of course, the words of MP Jo Cox.
Someone I don’t think I’d even heard of until last Thursday afternoon.
But someone for whom I’ve been moved to tears time and time again since a moment of unspeakable horror on an ordinary street in West Yorkshire.
I have read thousands of words reflecting on her killing over the last few days.
Many were by people that I could barely hold a candle to in terms of compelling, analytical and incisive prose – such as Jonathan Freedland and Marina Hyde.
There have been other high profile – and controversial pieces – such as those by Alex Massie in the Spectator, Iain Martin and Kate Spicer.
There was wisdom in all of them, particularly Massie’s.
And there have been fantastic tributes to Jo, one of the first from her fellow Syria campaigner, Tory MP Andrew Mitchell.
“We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”
Others have come from reporters who knew her as a hard-working and passionately committed MP.
Someone, as Rachel Johnson pointed out yesterday with a guilty conscience, who was busy helping constituents with their real problems as she, Nigel Farage and Bob Geldof indulged in name-calling and histrionics on the River Thames. Jo’s brilliantly articulate husband Brendan and their kids got caught in the crossfire, though, as they took to a dinghy to support the Remain cause.
Those reporters’ tributes have been heartfelt and glowing. Journalists from regional papers such as the Yorkshire Post and Yorkshire Evening Post joined broadcasters such as the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg in painting a picture of a warm, genuinely lovely woman.

It’s been said many times before in many different circumstances: what a shame it is that we never get to read our obits, the messages on our funeral flowers and the eulogies in our memory.
I wonder how many of those journalists ever said those sort of beautiful things to Jo’s face.
And I wonder how many of them had insisted that the vast majority of politicians were public-spirited masochists in the months and years leading up to Jo’s tragic death.
It’s a point made excellently by Michael Deacon in the Times, but one which needs making more often.

It’s not just our industry. I also wonder how many of Jo’s constituents ever gave her the right level of credit for the tireless problem-solving she did on their behalf. It was lovely to see #ThankYourMP taking off within hours of her death.

But, if we are – as so many commentators and politicians have urged – to reject the politics of hate, the media must play its part.
For more than two decades, as a news editor, I went looking for division and discord.
Find someone to condemn someone else they may not know saying things they haven’t heard about – and bingo! Rows have broken out, wars of words have erupted, battle lines have been drawn – and front pages have been filled.
And that other thing we do. When someone genuinely changes their mind.
Suddenly it’s an embarrassing u-turn, or a humiliating climbdown.

Why do we denigrate the results of good listening, or honest reflection?
“We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”
I wrote a couple of months ago about the media’s unhelpful role in the EU debate.
To be fair, I now get slightly frustrated with people who say they haven’t got enough information on which to decide the right way to vote on Thursday (it’s In by the way…).
You could have wallowed in TV debates, BBC explainers and newspaper polemics around the clock if you needed information, guidance and opinion.
But the point I made then – about media coverage being similar to fracking in the way it exploits minor fissures of disagreement to generate the hot gas of controversy – still stands.
Journalism is a finely-judged mixture of public-spirited citizenship and cynical suspicion.
Somehow that world view has got out of kilter.
In among the whipping-up of bitter rows and fierce condemnation, there was a question that I’m glad that in my more reflective moments I occasionally also used to ask.
‘How will this story help?’
Help in greater understanding, greater justice, greater knowledge, greater happiness, greater truth?
It’s one that perhaps all of us journalists need to ask a little more often if our tributes to Jo Cox are to really mean something.
“We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”





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